Future Reflections         Summer 2011

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What Do You Do with a Blind Ballerina?

by Deja M. Powell, MA, NOMC

Deja Powell in her wedding gown, smiling with her new husband.From the Editor: Deja Powell is an orientation and mobility instructor for blind children and serves as programs manager for the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University. Recently she got married to her fiancé when he returned from a deployment in Iraq.

My mom grew up as a dancer. When she was twelve she started teaching as an assistant dance teacher. Shortly after my parents were married, my dad built them a new house with a dance studio in the basement.

When I arrived, a baby girl, I was a dance teacher's dream. I left the hospital in tights and a leotard and leg warmers (this was back in the 1980s). That's pretty much what I wore from then on. I was the little ballerina my mom had always dreamed about!

You can perhaps imagine the heartbreak my parents experienced nine months into my life when they were told that I was blind. The doctors predicted a dismal future. My parents' dream of their little dancer probably faded into the distance.

However, as soon as I started to crawl and then to walk, the dream revived. I loved music and I loved dancing to it. When my mom went down to the studio to teach, I would cry at the top of the basement stairs. I badly wanted to dance, but I couldn't join the class--not because I was blind, but because I wasn't yet two years old.

When I finally turned two I started dance classes. Mostly my mom just let me move around in class as I chose; that's what two-year-old students usually do anyway. Outside of class Mom helped me move to an actual beat. Holding my hands, she danced with me in the living room, in the kitchen, in the studio, and in the yard. I quickly picked up on the rhythm of music. I knew how to work the stereo before I could talk. I loved to dance, and I danced all day.

As I got a little older, my mom began to spend more one-on-one time with me. She taught me specific positions for my feet and showed me where to place my arms. At first she literally put my body into the correct positions. As we worked, I learned ballet terminology. Plié, first position, jeté, pirouette, arabesque, fourth position--I knew what each term meant, and I could perform each one of them. Mom even did flashcards with me to help me learn the names of all the ballet positions. Whenever she announced a step in class, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

I began to excel in dance as I got older. I was long and lean and fit to be a dancer. I always felt that I was meant to dance.

As I became more competitive, I spent more and more time at the studio with my mom and classmates. I learned arm movements and specific placement for my feet for all my routines. At one point I was spending about ten hours a week at the studio. That was where I wanted to be.

In performances and competitions my teammates and I strategized about how I would find my spot, keep formation, and get to where I needed to go. Sometimes they communicated with me verbally, telling me to stop, keep going, or move to the right. Sometimes the routine was designed so that I didn't have to move far from my spot. I could still do many formations this way, and it helped make the transitions for me easier.

A dance teacher with a blind student can figure out what works best based on the student's strengths. Talk about what works most smoothly. Don't be afraid to try out several ideas before you figure out what works. Try to be as verbally expressive as possible while you teach. Plan one-on-one time to work with the blind student outside of class.

If you are the parent of a blind child who wants to dance, there are ways it can be done. As in any activity, you and your child may have moments of self-doubt. While I tried not to let my blindness affect my love for dance, there were moments when I thought about giving it all up. After all, you don’t see many blind dancers. Was there really a place for me in the world of ballet?

When I was nine years old, I had the opportunity to perform in the half-time show at the Fiesta Bowl football championship in Phoenix, Arizona. It was my first huge dance milestone. We spent hours on the hot football field, practicing our routines. At one point, I heard a teacher walk up to her student who was standing behind me. She told the student that she was positioning her arms the wrong way. "But I'm following the girl in front of me," the student protested. "Oh, you really shouldn't follow her," the teacher said. "She's blind. She doesn't know what's going on."

I felt crushed, and the tears started rolling. It was the first time in my life that someone doubted me because of my blindness. I have never forgotten that terrible moment.

I realize today that I have to set my own expectations and work on my own confidence, because people will doubt me my whole life. Dancing became my escape from reality. When I danced I felt like everyone else, and I actually felt like I belonged. I still find opportunities for dance today, such as yoga and Zumba (a combination of Latin dance and aerobics).

Fortunately for me, I had parents who really didn't care what the professionals had to say. They found ways to adapt something I loved around my blindness. If your child wants to be a dancer, a gymnast, or an athlete, there are always ways it can be done. There's a blind person out there somewhere who has done it already.

I can't imagine my life without dance. I'm glad my parents didn't hold back on letting me dance because I am blind. I'm grateful that they never thought I was too fragile, or that dance was too dangerous or too difficult for me. Dance shaped me and gave me the confidence that is a huge part of finding success as a blind adult.

Come on! Let’s dance!

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